Lawmakers should consider experience, diversity in choosing the next Architect of the Capitol
© Greg Nash

Anyone who witnessed the devastating fire that ripped through Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris last month should appreciate the need to maintain and preserve historic structures. In the United States, few buildings are more historic and treasured than our U.S. Capitol and the surrounding campus. The job of preserving it falls to the Architect of the Capitol, or AOC, as the position is known in the halls of Congress.

The AOC is both architect and curator, tasked with maintaining buildings that are a central symbol of our democracy and highlighting that history for the millions of people who visit each year from around the world. Over time, the AOC has preserved the history of this iconic building while preparing it for future generations.

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There have only been 11 Architects of the Capitol since George Washington laid the cornerstone for the building in 1793. The search is now underway for the twelfth. As lawmakers prepare to select three nominees for this critical role, we urge Congress to nominate licensed architects who also reflect the diverse qualities of the American people.

The first criteria may surprise some people. Despite the title, there is no requirement that the AOC actually be a licensed architect. However, recent history shows the importance of nominating a qualified professional. Over the last 20 years, the Capitol campus has undergone a series of major renovations, including the construction of the Capitol Visitors Center and the Capitol dome restoration.

Given the technical complexity of maintaining a building that has been around in one form or another for more than two centuries, we believe Congress should only consider professionally licensed architects because they can balance the practical needs of preserving the structure with the historic imperative of maintaining continuity.

The next AOC will be charged with managing a more than 18 million square foot campus and overseeing more major renovations, such as the completion of the Cannon House Office Building project. As a symbol of our democracy, the Capitol campus requires enhanced security features and structures to protect members of Congress, staff, and visitors from all threats. And just like any building, the facility must be protected from the slow erosion of time. 

Further, congressional staff has grown significantly over the past decade, and the next AOC will be responsible for improving the work environment for legislators and their staff to match or exceed those of the private sector. All of this must happen without disrupting ongoing legislative work or the millions of people who visit the Capitol every year.

The role demands an experienced leader who can provide informed guidance to its staff while successfully securing the trust and cooperation of members of Congress. Architects are the most qualified for this task and all the demands of this position.

They are trained—both in school and on-the-job—to manage multi-disciplinary teams and resolve any issues in a diplomatic manner. Additionally, architects are trained to manage large facilities while overseeing complex schedules and tight budgets. They routinely work with clients to identify parameters that are critical to the safe, secure, cost-efficient and productive use of the structures under their care. This isn’t a role for someone who needs on-the-job training, and decision-makers should seek out only the most qualified candidates.

Just as importantly, Congress should ensure that the pool of AOC candidates reflect diverse backgrounds. There are more women than ever enrolled in architecture schools – approximately 43 percent of students – and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) is actively working to boost the diversity of the architecture profession.

Like many other senior jobs in Washington, the position has symbolic importance. As our profession looks to expand its diversity, we feel strongly that Congress should nominate candidates who reflect the demographics of the country as a whole. Tomorrow’s cohort of architects must be as diverse and inclusive as the society that they will serve.

Without question, the Capitol and its campus are living, breathing elements of our American heritage. The building, like the country it represents, must evolve with time. The building represents one of the most important pieces of historic architecture in our nation, but is also a place where people work, learn and visit. Any nominee should be a licensed architect selected from a group of highly-qualified and diverse candidates. Our nation’s future demands it.

William Bates, FAIA, is AIA 2019 president and Jane Frederick, FAIA, is AIA 2019 first vice president/2020 president.